The story behind the world’s longest detained journalist held 20 years without trial

Mildred Europa Taylor August 19, 2021
Dawit Isaak, in Sweden circa 1987-88. © Kalle Ahlsén/United Nations

Every year, World Freedom Day is held to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, evaluate press freedom around the world, defend the media from attacks and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. Yet, threats and attacks against the media continue to increase, putting the lives of journalists at risk.

A 2017 report by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) said that media freedom continues to fall around the world as journalists are “being threatened by government censorship, organized crime and commercial pressures caused by the growth of the internet.”

What is worrying is that in some countries, there have been painful silences from authorities over the whereabouts of some journalists who have been reported missing over the years.

On Wednesday, UN experts demanded the release of journalist and human rights defender Dawit Isaak, who has been imprisoned without trial in Eritrea since 2001. Activists doubt whether he is even still alive. “To this day, Dawit Isaak has never been charged with a crime, spent a day in court or spoken to his lawyer,” Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said.

“The level to which the Eritrean Government is ignoring Mr. Isaak’s basic, fundamental human rights is appalling. He must be released at once.”

Lawlor said in the first years of his detention, “we received information that Mr. Isaak was often taken to hospital, which was concerning in itself.”

“Now we receive no news, and that’s worse. We fear for his life. At an absolute minimum, Eritrea must immediately present evidence that he is alive and well.”

56-year-old Isaak, an Eritrean-Swedish journalist, playwright and author, set up one of Eritrea’s first independent media outlets in the 1990s, the Setit newspaper. He was however imprisoned without trial in 2001 after the paper published open letters written by a group of politicians to the Eritrean president.

His case has been in the limelight over the years thanks to civil society efforts, international lobbying campaigns, diplomatic initiatives by his adopted country Sweden, among others. Yet, the Eritrean government has refused calls to release him or give him a fair trial apart from a brief release in 2005. In November that year when he was released, he was detained again two days later while he was on his way to a hospital, according to a report by UNESCO.

Since then, he has been risking his life each day in a prison in Eritrea, one of the world’s most repressive countries when it comes to the media. Sources say he is being held in Eiraeiro prison, a detention center where UN experts say many inmates have reportedly died in custody. Another source told the UN that Isaak was alive in September 2020, the first sign of life in seven years.

“The enforced disappearance of Mr. Isaak for almost two decades is extremely concerning,” said Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, Special Rapporteur on Eritrea. “The Government of Eritrea has not confirmed his whereabouts or provided any solid evidence about his state of health in all these years. It has denied torture allegations but has not allowed anyone to visit Mr. Isaak.”

Born on October 27, 1964, amid the Eritrean War of Independence, Isaak grew up in Asmara, where his parents operated a small Italian deli. One of five siblings, Isaak fled Eritrea for Sweden in 1987 when clashes between the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and the Ethiopian army got worse. While in Sweden, he never forgot his roots and was determined to help fight for a peaceful and democratic Eritrea.

In 1992, Isaak obtained Swedish citizenship and returned to Eritrea the following year at a time the country had just gained its independence. Back in his native country, he got married and had three children. “One of my earliest memories of my father is him teaching me and my brother to read, and from the age of 4, he taught us math,” Betlehem Isaak, one of Isaak’s children, said in an interview recently. “He was keen for us to learn about our history and the world around us, though he wasn’t always very pedagogic! But he tried his best. He was a very committed parent.”

In the late 1990s, Isaak co-founded his country’s first independent newspaper, Setit, named after the only river in the country that flows all year round. Authorities in Eritrea had at the time issued a new law that paved the way for the ownership of print media. Becoming part-owner of Setit, Isaak started work as a prolific columnist, writing about culture and local affairs. He was compelled to leave for Sweden again after fights broke out again between Ethiopia and Eritrea. His wife and children later joined him in Sweden.

But in 2001, Isaak came back home to Eritrea. The country was still unstable when his newspaper published open letters written by a group of politicians known as the G15. The group in the letters asked the Eritrean government to hold open elections and implement a newly drafted Constitution, according to a report by the United Nations Human Rights. A few months after the open letters, all independent newspapers were banned. Eleven of those behind the open letters, including top politicians, Isaak and nine other journalists, were jailed.

Isaak was arrested on September 23, 2001, just weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the United States. All eyes were on the terror attacks then. And when Swedish authorities, media and civil society started paying attention to Isaak’s case, the government at the time engaged in “quiet diplomacy” with Eritrea for his release. In November 2005, Isaak was released to the joy of his family and friends but detained again after two days.

In 2017, the Eritrean-Swedish journalist was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize, becoming an international symbol in the fight for press freedom and freedom of expression. Days before the awards ceremony, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights announced that it would take up Isaak’s case but nothing came of it.

In October 2020, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders filed a complaint with the office of the Swedish prosecutor for international crimes accusing Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki and seven other senior Eritrean officials of a crime against humanity by holding Isaak incommunicado since 2001.

“The National Unit for International and Organised Crimes, which is attached to the Swedish prosecutor’s office, said in a decision published on January 12 that it had reasons to believe Swedish-Eritrean journalist Isaak is the victim of a crime against humanity coming under Sweden’s universal jurisdiction. But it refused to open an investigation on the grounds that it would be difficult to carry out in the absence of any cooperation by the Eritrean authorities,” Reporters Without Borders wrote this April, highlighting that Isaak and his colleague journalists are now the longest detained journalists in the world.

“We are now asking for a review higher up in the prosecution authority,” Reporters Without Borders said in a complaint with the office of the Swedish prosecutor for international crimes.

“We are doing this for the sake of protecting justice, equity, the public interest and the common good — and for the sake of the journalist, husband and father of three who risks his life in the Eritrean prison system every day.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: August 19, 2021


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates